The Heart of the Matter

by Graham Greene

It is a different book altogether by Graham Greene that is entitled The End of the Affair, but rest assured that Graham Greene KNOWS how an affair ends, and he will tell you right here in the pages of The Heart of the Matter. I don't know how the author could have written a book like this one—in which the protagonist so believably endures his own personally intractable Scylla & Charybdis—without Greene himself having experienced the specific variety of heartache about which he writes. There is emotional & psychological sadism in the pages of this book that is able to cut as close to the bone as it does because it is dealt underhanded & subtly by characters. Therefore, reading The Heart of the Matter can at times feel masochistic. If you're a fan of the climax of a story being proved utterly feckless in hindsight by the story's own denouement—*OUCH*—then this book is for you.

The tale, set in colonial West Africa during the war, starts out somewhat unremarkably. There are subplots of intrigue and social studies that round out The Heart of the Matter. But the noose...really of ALL plot lines...gets tighter & tighter as you keep reading. By the second half, I found it at once hard to put down The Heart of the Matter but simultaneously painful to read. There's a ton of honesty in the writing, and as my reading slowed attentively in the presence of this, I couldn't tell if it was because I was savoring home truths or babying the Band-Aid off millimeter by millimeter (see masochism above). After all, I see parts of my own story writ large in the perfect prose of Graham Greene...

• "[S]he had been educated by love and secrecy: he was beginning to form her."
• "Life always repeated the same pattern: there was always, sooner or later, bad news that had to be broken, comforting lies to be uttered."
• "How clever we've been: how successfully we've deceived the gossipers of a small colony. It oughtn't to be possible for lovers to deceive so well. Wasn't love supposed to be spontaneous, reckless...?"
• "[I]n human love there is never such a thing as victory: only a few minor tactical successes before the final defeat of death or indifference."
• "One must be reasonable, he told himself, and recognize that despair doesn't last (is that true?), that love doesn't last (but isn't that the very reason despair does?), that in a few weeks or months she'll be all right again."
• "When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity."

That last quote summarizes much of what this book is about. The heart of the matter (in this usage: not the book title) is the intersection of love and pity. Or perhaps it is an examination of people who conflate the two emotions. If you believe that your bond to another person—and theirs to you—isn't love, but is the desire to not cause pain...aren't we back to love? And if we aren't, isn't mutual "pity" (in this case) just as intensely strong a bond as love? If the suffering for another is the same at the end of the day, perhaps we're just talking semantics.

The Heart of the Matter, written by a British author, is set in Africa. And beyond the trenchantly painful "love" story, it is also part mystery, part class study. The main character is called Scobie. This caught my eye, as ten years later, another British author, Lawrence Durrell, would set a part love story/part intrigue also in Africa, also have a character named Scobie (albeit not the protagonist), and call his book(s) The Alexandria Quartet.